Progress on Syria
September 14, 2013 1 Comment
Surprising developments continued to emerge this week regarding Syria. President Obama had a major dilemma on his hands in proposing strikes against Assad’s regime but with little support abroad and growing opposition at home.
It was suddenly resolved by Russia stepping in and providing a third option. At first it appeared that Secretary of State, John Kerry, had made an off-hand remark in a televised interview that Russia quickly seized hold of, but other information indicates that the groundwork had already been laid for such a move in private talks between Obama and Putin on Sept. 6 at the G-20 Summit.
There has been an enormous amount of discussion as to who gained the upper hand in this situation: Obama or Putin. Did Putin come to Obama’s rescue? Or did Obama’s threat of unilateral action against Syria push Putin into getting involved? I am sure we will continue to hear both sides of this debated for some time to come. But this much is undeniable:
1) A week ago Syria was denying that it possessed chemical weapons; now it has admitted to its stockpiles.
2) Russia had previously stood with Syria in denying these weapons existed; now Russia is also on record in admitted their existence.
3) If the U.S. had taken military action in Syria the result would have been unpredictable but potentially catastrophic (in terms of escalation and retaliation).
4) It was in Russia’s own interest to get involved in bringing about a peaceful solution, rather than letting the West be the only actor – and thus determiner – of ensuing events.
5) The UN is now also involved, and the interim gives time for the UN inspectors to table their own poison gas report this week and for other nations to join together in opposing Syria.
Russia may have “saved Obama’s ass,” as some have said, but the price has been high: Russia is now on the hook to make the plan work and convince Syria to comply. Obama merely has to continue to threaten military action if the plan fails (a fairly straightforward decision), while Russia has to do the hard work in keeping Syria on board in moving the process forward. In my view, Obama got the better part of the deal.
I watched in the last few days as John Kerry and his Russian counter-part Sergey Lavrov did their formal negotiating “dance,” and was expecting some kind of standoff “with honour” that would have produced minimal results while still allowing each side to save face. So I was very surprised to hear this morning that after three days of negotiations, a formal agreement has been reached with commitments for Syria to disclose its entire stockpile of chemical weapons, a strict time table for U.N. inspections, and a schedule for destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. There are still enormous hurdles to overcome (e.g. transporting chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone and the safety of the UN personnel). But there are undeniable gains.
Both the U.S. and Russia have agreed to press the UN for a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. This is itself a major breakthrough. Chapter 7 can authorize formal actions against Syria if it does not comply with these measures, meaning anything from sanctions to military force. Russia will no doubt continue to oppose UN military force, but is open to other measures. Until now Russia was blocking every proposed action against Syria at the Security Council; this is now no longer the case.
Hope has also sprung for the next step in ending the Syrian conflict. Kerry and Lavrov have met with the UN-Arab League envoy to lay the groundwork for a second peace conference on Syria. A successful resolution of the chemical weapons issue was seen as a necessary prerequisite for these talks to be held.
How things will unfold from this point on is anyone’s guess. But for the time being we have stepped back from the brink and can admit to some cautious optimism for the future.